News / On fighting the outside world and inner demons as artists

On fighting the outside world and inner demons as artists



13 / 02 / 20

By Haleema Ali

An interfaith creative arts collective. When I saw these words, they resonated with my soul and I hit ‘apply’. How ironic, when the very topic the collective decided to cover, a few months later, was whether art has a soul. I am an artist, curator and writer, who uses art as a form of activism to inspire social change. I’m also Muslim and love to use art to express my identity. To call myself an artist or creative is liberating. Before I came into the collective, I had imposter syndrome. Yes, I had curated two exhibitions in the space of a year, on knife crime and human rights. Yes, both exhibitions were featured on BBC News and countless radio appearances. But it felt like an accident. I was a youth worker, teacher and mentor… not a qualified artist. What qualifies us? Training? A course? These were questions I could share with the group as our journey began.

Our collective is made up of a diverse group of young women. Coming from different backgrounds, we could share our different lived experiences in the arts sector. We touched on heavy themes, such as privilege, tokenism and exclusion. To see inclusion, we needed to start with simple things such as food and drink. Why was the norm at arts events to have an alcohol-filled atmosphere and expect no halal or kosher food, or even allergies to be catered for? Instead of spending hundreds on posh wine receptions and being constantly told there was no funding for food that I could eat, I’d love to see an event where care and thought is taken into letting people of various faith-backgrounds enjoy the canapes. Next time there are cocktails, I want to see alcohol-free cocktails! This was something we took into consideration when designing our own interfaith art event.

What would our event include? We looked to our strengths and weaknesses. We were poets, curators and performers. Artists who had a vision to share with the world. We were offered help and guidance from experienced professionals, which was invaluable. We unleashed our creativity through team activities. We bounced off each other’s ideas. We wrote and expressed why we thought art has a soul.

We discussed our different methods of faith, belief or rituals. Some of us used meditation through modern-day apps, whilst others used prayer. Both unite us through a sense of calm, contemplation and presence. We used movement and objects to express our identities. Prayer mats, a book and a piece to remind someone of home. I could not decide on just one object – as a Muslim who follows guidance from the Quran, but living in the 21st century, I wanted something to showcase that. I bought my tasbeeh (prayer beads) and a digital counter. I use both to count how much dhikr (prayer supplications) I do. Whether that’s by running my fingers across wooden beads or by pressing a button on a modern counting device, both bring a sense of tranquility to my core.

As a hijab-wearing Muslim, I want to see representation. Art should be liberating, not restricting. Instead, when I see so-called representation in the arts, it’s typically by having the person of faith being freed of their religious ideologies or using their religion in the name of violence. The hijabi who removes her headscarf or Muslims as terrorists – it’s all getting tiresome, lazy and sloppy. We need to call out institutional racism and call for more representation in the arts. But first, we need to believe in ourselves. How can I change others’ perception of me as an artist, if I was afraid to call myself one? For me, art does not simply have a soul – it is simply the vessel, the body to let our souls speak. I need to let my soul speak first, by believing in my art, before trying to tackle the world.

The SoulArts Collective, a group of young curators and creators from different faiths and beliefs, was hosted at the Faith & Belief Forum and supported by Amal (a Saïd Foundation programme).

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